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Heffner column: What do our children think?

Dr. Elaine Heffner
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Morning Sun

Columns share an author’s personal perspective.

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Some things seem too hard to talk about with our children. Even normal things like death or the illness of a parent. But these days, surrounded by ever-present media presenting stories and pictures of unimaginable events, as parents we have even greater concern about how we can protect our young children from the effects of what they see and hear.

This past week newspapers and TV have been flooded with stories and pictures of the horrifying assault on, and invasion of the Capitol by those seeking to overturn our national election of a new president. How do we talk to our children about these things?

While young children don’t have our memories of upsetting events in the past, such as 9/11, or even former protest marches, our impulse is to protect our children from upset or worry, and to minimize an event as a way of denying its impact on a child.

Children are much more aware of what is going on around them than we think they are or would like them to be. Yet sometimes our own emotions get in the way of our recognizing or understanding what our children are thinking and feeling. We can’t explain to them why this happened in a way that makes sense, because it makes no sense to us. This is difficult for us as parents since we expect to be able to explain things to them and they expect that of us.

Children react to events in different ways, which may be different than we imagined. The media already have been filled with advice about how to talk to your children about this. Perhaps the best advice is to listen to your children. This means to try to hear what it is that concerns them - if anything - before deciding what kind of story to tell them.

The way we talk to a child about disturbing events depends a great deal on the age and developmental stage of the child. By listening to his questions and what he says, you can correct any distortions in his understanding and offer a simple story about what is known. The story needs to match the child’s age and level of development but can be straightforward and real without going into gory details.

That may seem obvious but it is more difficult than it may seem. What interferes with hearing our children are our own emotional reactions. If we are aware of the feelings aroused in us, we can put them aside and listen instead for our children’s feelings and concerns. I found this in talking to several teenagers. Knowing about the absence of civics in school curricula these days, I inwardly wondered if they could possibly be as affected as I was by this assault on the seat of our democracy.

One said it was the “dirtiness” of it that was horrible, the “trampling of majesty - like a temple.” Another said it was like watching pictures of the Titanic going down. There were comments about the contrast between police reaction at the George Floyd protest march and at the invasion of the halls of Congress. These were high school students currently in school, only remotely. Talking to younger students would no doubt elicit different thoughts and associations.

We can’t protect children from life’s painful events and experiences. We can only listen and respond to their concerns to help them develop the mental and emotional muscles they need to confront whatever life holds.

The reassurance for us is our children’s resilience, and their preoccupation with the more usual events of daily life.

Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.